Lee A. Franck, of Niagra. Felony charges filed May 22 include first degree intentional homicide.

By Shereen Siewert

More than four years after the brutal slaying of a 77-year-old Wausau man, the sole suspect in the case was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide – a crime that carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

But when 60-year-old Lee Franck is sentenced, a judge could allow him to seek extended release after spending at least 20 years behind bars. Police say Franck went to 77-year-old Lyle Leith’s Kickbusch Street home on Feb. 18, 2018 and killed him in the garage, one day after the two had an argument. Leith’s daughter, who was a friend of Franck, found her father’s body and told police Franck had threatened her family during and after the argument. Initial reports suggested Leith’s daughter and Franck were romantically involed, but Leith’s daughter told Wausau Pilot & Review the two were not dating, and that Franck was staying at her home for a time.

Autopsy results show Leith died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head, likely caused by a tire iron or crowbar. Police say they discovered a metal pipe in a fire pit on Franck’s property that could have been the murder weapon. He was a suspect early in the investigation and was arrested initially on felony domestic abuse charges. Police relied in part on dash cam video from Franck’s vehicle that showed he purchased bleach at a store in Iron Mountain the night of the murder. The Wisconsin State Crime Lab also discovered DNA from Leith and Franck in blood on the driver door handle of Franck’s vehicle, according to court documents.

Eight months after the murder while being held on a $750,000 cash bond, Franck pleaded not guilty to the crime by reason of mental disease or defect, Wisconsin’s version of the insanity plea. If the defense had succeeded, Franck would have been committed to a psychiatric facility instead of a correctional facility, depending on the circumstances of the case. But that effort failed.

Franck also struggled to keep defense counsel, with two prominent defense attorneys stepping away from the case. Richard Lawson withdrew from the case in September 2019, while Peter Prusinski, citing a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, withdrew as counsel in May 2020. He is now represented by his third attorney, Peter Rotter.

Franck’s trial dates were changed multiple times as the case wore on. By entering a plea on Monday in Marathon County Circuit Court Franck avoids a trial by jury, which was set to begin on April 18.

A review of court records show Franck has a number of criminal charges and convictions dating back to 2007, when he was found guilty of intimidating a victim in Marathon County Circuit Court. In that case, a felony stalking charge from 2007 was dismissed as part of a plea agreement. Franck lived in Wausau at that time.

In 2008, Franck was convicted of criminal trespassing and bail jumping. In that Marathon County case, additional charges of stalking, battery, making threats to injure, criminal damage to property, intimidating a victim and disorderly conduct were also dismissed.

In 2013, he was charged in Florence County Circuit Court with second degree recklessly endangering safety and endangering safety by use of a dangerous weapon, but those charges were dismissed as part of a plea deal that involved Franck pleading guilty to disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail.

Now, Franck faces the likely possibility he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Neither party requested a presentencing investigation be completed before Circuit Judge Greg Strasser issues a sentence for Franck on a date yet to be determined.

Franck remains behind bars, where he has been since May 2018.